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What is Tanabata Festival?

The Tanabata Festival, also known as the Star Festival, is one of Japan's most enchanting and culturally rich celebrations. The festival is held annually on July 7th commemorating the legendary meeting of two celestial lovers, Orihime and Hikoboshi. Rooted in ancient folklore and infused with seasonal traditions, Tanabata captivates both locals and visitors with its unique blend of mythology, art, and community festivities.

The origins of Tanabata can be traced back to a Chinese legend called Qixi, which was introduced to Japan during the Nara Period (710-794 AD). The story revolves around two stars, Vega (Orihime, the Weaving Princess) and Altair (Hikoboshi, the Cowherd), who were separated by the Milky Way and were allowed to meet only once a year on the seventh day of the seventh lunar month. Orihime, the daughter of the Sky King, wove beautiful cloth by the banks of the Amanogawa (Milky Way). She fell in love with Hikoboshi, a diligent cowherd who lived across the celestial river. Distracted by their love, they neglected their duties, which angered Orihime's father. As punishment, he separated them, but moved by their sorrow, permitted them to reunite once a year on the seventh day of the seventh month, provided they fulfilled their respective tasks.

Note: Other countries besides Japan also observe festivals similar to Qixi, with Korea and Vietnam each having their own unique versions.

Tanabata has evolved from its mythological origins to become a celebration rich with customs and activities. Traditionally, the festival is marked by the writing of wishes on colorful strips of paper called tanzaku. These tanzaku, along with other paper ornaments, are hung on bamboo branches, which are often placed outside homes or in community spaces. The bamboo and decorations create a stunning visual display that symbolizes hope and the desire for dreams to come true.

In addition to wish-writing, traditional Tanabata celebrations include:

  1. Kimonos and Yukatas: Many participants don traditional Japanese garments such as kimonos or yukatas, adding to the festival's festive atmosphere.

  2. Festive Foods: Special foods like somen noodles, which are said to resemble the Milky Way, are enjoyed during the festival.

  3. Music and Dance: Traditional music and dance performances, including bon odori (a type of dance), are common during the festivities.

Tanabata decorations (©

While the essence of Tanabata remains the same, modern celebrations have expanded to include large-scale events and city-wide decorations. Major cities like Sendai and Hiratsuka are renowned for their grand Tanabata festivals, drawing thousands of visitors each year.

  1. Sendai Tanabata Festival: Held from August 6th to 8th, this festival is famous for its elaborate and beautifully crafted decorations. Gigantic, colorful streamers made from washi paper and other materials adorn the streets, creating a magical and vibrant atmosphere. The festival also features parades, fireworks, and traditional music performances.

  2. Hiratsuka Tanabata Festival: Taking place in early July, Hiratsuka's festival is one of the largest in the Kanto region. The city is transformed with a plethora of decorations, including large tanzaku, streamers, and illuminated displays. The event also hosts a variety of food stalls, games, and live entertainment.

  3. Community and School Celebrations: Across Japan, schools and communities celebrate Tanabata with their own unique customs. Children often participate in making tanzaku and other decorations, which they proudly display at home or in classrooms. Local events may include Tanabata-themed crafts, storytelling sessions, and small-scale parades.

child places tanabata decorations on a bamboo branch.
A child arranging tanabata decorations (© Pixta)

Tanabata holds deep cultural significance in Japan, embodying themes of love, perseverance, and hope. The festival encourages reflection on personal wishes and dreams, fostering a sense of community and shared aspirations. It also serves as a reminder of the importance of balance and dedication in fulfilling one's responsibilities, as depicted in the legend of Orihime and Hikoboshi.

The Tanabata Festival is a beautiful fusion of mythology, tradition, and modern celebration. It is a testament to Japan's ability to preserve its cultural heritage while adapting to contemporary influences. Whether through the enchanting sight of bamboo trees adorned with colorful wishes, the taste of festival foods, or the joy of communal festivities, Tanabata continues to be a cherished and magical event that unites people in the spirit of hope and love.

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